Existential threats bringing Erdoğan and Maduro together

As Venezuela's political crisis is unfolding, the unwavering support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies for the embattled Nicolas Maduro has been a wide-discussed theme in international media.

For some, by standing by Maduro against the “U.S.-backed coup”, Turkey is only paying its respects to the Venezuelan president, who expressed solidarity with Erdoğan during the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. Interestingly, Venezuela was among the first countries to back Turkey during the botched coup attempt in Turkey. Maduro's immediate support to Erdoğan came at a time the Western allies of Ankara were slow to show their reaction over the coup attempt.

While Maduro’s support is highly praised by Turkish circles, this move was, indeed, not a pure principled stance of the Maduro regime against the undemocratic interventions. Rather, it was a pragmatic attitude stemming from the internal threats that his regime has faced in recent years in the country. 

Since he came into office in March 2013 President Nicolas Maduro has alleged there have been several attempted coups against his government. Some Venezuelan opposition members and generals were arrested by intelligence agents, indicted on charges of conspiracy against the government. While the Venezuelan government fingers opposition members, generals, or businessmen in the coup attempt against him, Maduro also accused the United States of masterminding a coup attempt to overthrow him.

While the Maduro regime felt itself under the pressure of being overthrown by a coup d’etat, the failure of the coup attempt in Turkey was a timely and excellent case for Maduro to menace his opponents in the army. “Did you see what happened in Turkey? Erdoğan will seem like a nursing baby compared to what the Bolivarian revolution will do if the right-wing steps over the line with a coup.” These were the words Maduro used to describe his reaction to the failed Turkish coup. He asserted that the unprecedented purge held by Erdogan was nothing compared to what will happen in Venezuela following a coup attempt.

Maduro and Erdogan have never had a good relations before, but the failed coup attempt and the reaction of Erdogan to the coup have made Maduro an admirer of Erdogan. 

Now it is Erdogan’s turn to take advantage of the Venezuelan crisis in order to rally his supporters in Turkey. Shortly after the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s interim president in accordance with Venezuela’s constitutional provisions, President Erdoğan voiced his support for Maduro, saying, “Turkey is against any kind of coup attempt.” The Venezuela crisis served as a showcase to boost public anger and create a victim narrative for Turkish officials.

As it was the case in Maduro’s support to Turkey in the failed coup attempt, Erdogan and his supporters’ reaction to the Venezuelan crisis is not because of principled stance to protect democracy against the external interventions. While dozens of elected parliamentarians and mayors are kept behind bars in Turkey, the reaction of Erdoğan to the move of the Venezuelan opposition against Maduro seems awkward.

Rather, the attitudes of Erdoğan and his allies regarding the Venezuelan crisis are rooted in the concern for the future where Erdogan may face the same scenarios. There is a widespread belief that Erdogan has repeatedly become the target of similar U.S.-led attempt to unseat him.

This has been more evident in the Turkish pro-government media’s approach to the recent Venezuelan crisis. As Akit TV commentator, Fatih Dağistanli, pointed to an Islamist paper- headlined “Imperialist Siege” and said: "Standing by Maduro is, in a sense, standing by Erdoğan. They may be two different men and these may be two different countries, however, what they have had to face and the situation both countries are are similar. If they send off Maduro, know that Erdoğan, too, will be removed. This is the first step towards sending off Erdoğan.’’

It should be remembered that the Venezuelan crisis has stretched on the claims in the growing dispute over accusations of irregularities in the elections boycotted by the opposition. In the same manner, Turkey’s recent democratic backsliding has profoundly worried the internal and external actors. Especially in recent elections, the irregularities in the election campaign, including self-censorship, misuse of state resources, lack of transparency, and cases of voter fraud bring into question the legitimacy of Turkey’s electoral democracy as a whole.

Against this backdrop, the growing fear of the Turkish elites over facing a would-be legitimacy crisis in the future fuels the sympathy towards the embattled Maduro. While the local elections are approaching in Turkey, the Venezuelan crisis has turned into a golden opportunity for Erdogan and his allies to confront any challenges over the credibility of elections and any other criticisms. It should be noted that Erdogan supporters, especially the figures in pro-government media have substantial fear about their future and newfound privileges. Their futures and benefits are going hand in hand with the political future of the AKP and of Erdoğan himself.  In the case that Erdogan loses the power, this would highly likely be the end of their lucrative lives.

In short, neither Maduro nor Erdoğan’s move to show solidarity to one another in face of the failed coup and recent presidential standoff in Venezuela is based on the principled stance in support of democracy, but rather rooted in a more pragmatic action to survive their regimes against internal and external confrontations.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.